Thinking Out Loud: Tribes

In the old paradigm of writing and publishing, a writer essentially worked to have all of his or her ideas formed and packaged before publishing. Such was required – all of the thinking on paper had to be relatively complete before it went to press, experienced the magic of publication, and landed on a shelf.

With blogging, as well as with other social media, the power of the printing press has been democratized to the masses. For some, that is frightening. I often hear choruses of “Anybody can get something on the Internet now. Used to be only experts could express their ideas onpaper. Now any yokel can press publish.”

For me, getting to think out loud is exciting and empowering. Sure, sometimes thinking out loud means that a blog post possesses that feeling of “unfinished-ness.” However, it is this unfinished-ness that excites me. By thinking out loud, I can amplify my current thinking and incorporate others’ thinking – if they will just take the risk to think out loud, too, and share. WE are smarter than me. Steve Johnson’s “coffee house” has a better chance of materializing if we are congregating and sharing our thinking. With a growth mindset, I worry not about what people will think of my unfinished, unrefined, unpolished post. I want to grow. Growing requires sticking your neck out. It’s not about looking silly. It’s about learning.

Of course, I am not telling you readers anything you don’t already know. Rather, I am simply finishing a preface to what I really want to write about this morning – but, gloriously, my thinking is not finished on this next topic. By sharing some initial thoughts, those thoughts stand the chance of being read and amplified by a Jonathan Martin, a Lyn Hilt, a Bill Ferriter, a John Burk, a Jill Gough, an Anna Moore, or a colleague that I have yet to meet – either in reality or in virtual space. I can leverage my PLN if I will just risk letting them in to my thinking.


This morning I am re-reading Seth Godin’s Tribe. Many of you may know that I am a stack reader – I will digress if I explain that strategy of my reading. I could just highlight some passages and take some notes, but then those highlights and notes would only benefit me. Additionally, those highlights and notes could not be amplified by others whose thinking could magnify my own. So…I am recording some ideas here – unfinished, unpolished ideas. Here’s to the potential of amplification. If nothing happens to these ideas, I am no worse off. However, if even one reader chooses to comment, question, argue, or postulate, then my thinking can be improved.

  • On page 83 of the hard-copy of Tribes, Godin writes, “When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.” Many people probably think that I love PLCs. They would be wrong. I love learning. I think schools and education should be ALL about learning. Over the last century or two, I worry a bit that schools may have fallen in love with the system of efficient operations and teaching. I have faith in people as learners, but I do believe that learning is a social activity. If teachers do not have time together – job-embedded time, not just their own time – then it is too easy to get in a repititious rut of teaching the same things, the same ways. To explore, experiment, wrestle with ideas…we need fellowship, time to think out loud, a tribe with whom to work. I am not in love with the system of PLCs. I am in love with learning. Show me a system that promotes learning better, and I will follow.
  • Folks who are not really studying PLCs seem to fall into the trap that PLCs ARE the meetings, the structures, the frameworks. PLCs are about the principles of learning. Call them whatever you want, structure them however you want…as long as the focus is on deep, mearningful learning. In our PLCs at Westminster (at least most of the current, formalized PLCs), we put things through four filters: 1) what should be learned?, 2) how will we know if learning is happening?, 3) what will we do if learning is not happening?, 4) what will we do if the learner already knows this? These questions guide all learning – student, adult, teacher, admin. ALL LEARNERS.
  • Godin uses pp. 79-85 to explore an extended metaphor comparing and contrasting faith and religion. Godin remarks, “Faith is critical to all innovation. WIthout faith, it’s suicidal to be a leader, to act like a heretic.” We MUST believe in the work and the change we are bringing about. Preserving the pre-existing structures, the worked-in-the-past frameworks, is not leadership. It’s management. Leadership revolves around learning. Learning is, by definition, about change. Leading and learning cannot love the status quo – to do so would admit that we have achieved all that we can achieve. We are as good as we can get.

More later. My thoughts are unfinished…

Godin, Seth. Tribes. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.

6 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud: Tribes

  1. Before being part of our PLCs this year, I was not convinced that they were a worthwhile endeavor for the following reasons:

    1. I was afraid that I would be potentially promoting an agenda that was not my own.

    2. I was afraid it would turn into shared planning time and division of labor, i.e. unstructured planning time, like I had heard about in many other schools.

    However, nothing could be further from the truth. An individual worker by nature, I have left my life as a hermit and feel like I have successfully learned to collaborate with my teammates for the collective good and with the goal of maximizing student learning. Although Bo and Jill clearly respect the PLC “process”, there is no hidden agenda, and we as facilitators and team members are encouraged to do what we feel is in the best interest of student learning. I believe that the way we have implemented PLCs at our school is pretty faithful to the DuFours’ ideas, as I understand them. Very little of our time is spent simply planning. In fact, when given the choice, our Spanish team always prefers to work collaboratively rather than plan lessons by levels. To me, that in and of itself is a testament to the power of PLCs. I also think that having a PLC Facilitators’ PLC is crucial, as is having the PLC leaders attend individual PLCs.

    I do not believe that Bo or Jill are married to the idea of a PLC in and of itself. I believe that if another “process” proved more worthy, they would choose student learning over status quo (if the status quo were PLC-based).

    However, I do share Bill’s concern that people who are good at promoting PLCs may leave, and at the moment, I think we are leader dependent in our PLC model. People who get too good at what they do tend to move on. The PLC model is catching on school wide, and once everyone is on board, it will be less leader dependent, but I don’t think we are there yet. I also think that although the PLC jargon may cede to another, better “system” eventually (nothing in education ever seems to “stick”; call me cynical), the model of job-embedded, collaborative professional development with the goal of improving student learning is a good one, no matter what the jargon of the day may be.

  2. Bo and Bill,
    I haven’t read Godin’s “system” quote in context, but on it’s face I suspect that is a very conditional statement. If by “system” you mean an overly regulated and regimented organization, then of course, growth is stymied. Anything, whether an organism or an organization, must grow on its own terms, given its unique environment (suddenly I’m wondering why my gardenias never bloomed this winter…). But when PLCs are allowed room to individualize and innovate, I think passion for the community will only enhance the growth.

    In the continuing process of developing our ELs (which look more like learning targets, but we’ve decided to soldier on because we’ve got some good momentum going), Vielka stood up today in SPLT to ask if we might want to try “just one more approach”. With a few strokes of the whiteboard marker, Vielka sketched out what became our first, pristine Essential Learning, one not tied to a particular unit, not pegged to grammar, and one that can be applied to any other discipline. Within minutes, learning targets, key vocabulary, prior knowledge, and timeline were also on the board. Kristen and I were agog, but kept our mouths shut for fear that saying something would make Vielka think that she “usurped power from the Almighty Facilitators.”

    It was a moment of passion that, if our “system” were overly systematized, would never have happened. So I think Godin’s statement needs to be massaged. If we fall in love with a system AS IT IS OR AS IT’S ORDAINED TO BE, then yes, we do limit growth.

    Our PLT was a beanstalk today, and the ONLY reason on this occasion was LOVE.

  3. Hey Bo,

    Lots of great thinking in this post, by the way. I particularly like the bit about “thinking out loud” and “sticking your neck out.” You’re right that social spaces allow us to open our ideas to others—who can push back, forcing us to refine and revise our initial positions.

    In fact, that’s how I found your post—-I regularly use Google Blogsearch to track down mentions of my name or the Tempered Radical, mostly because I want to see what people are saying about my thoughts. I figure if they’re taking the time to mention me in something that they’ve written, I want to see what they had to say because it will probably help me to polish what I know.

    That’s cool, isn’t it?

    And it’s definitely the beauty of publicly sharing your thoughts—and of digital tools that make it possible to easily track down what other people think of your thoughts.

    Now, as far as PLCs go, I agree that when people fall in love with “the system” of PLCs, they stop growing as an organization. Instead of seeing PLCs as another initiative that needs to be implemented, we need to see them as a way of doing business—a commitment to a culture of shared reflection.

    But here’s the hitch: I’m not sure that we’ll ever truly see PLCs as a way of doing business in schools.

    I just don’t think it will happen.

    Here’s why: Average principals are too overwhelmed to really understand the difference between “PLCs as an initiative” and “PLCs as a way of doing business.” As a result, they’re settling for surface level implementation because surface level implementation is easy to monitor and easy to lead.

    When you’re overwhelmed, easy is a good thing.

    And the savvy principals who really get how PLCs should look if they were to be a meaningful, long term lever for school change get promoted to new positions—so they’re never leading schools for very long.

    What does that mean?

    Well, in the places where PLCs could flourish because they’ve got the right kind of leadership, the leaders change quickly—-and in the rest of the places where average leaders are being paid too little to do too much, PLCs become just another initiative to throw on the school’s scrap heap.

    Pretty pessimistic coming from an author who has written an award winning book on PLCs, huh?

    Do you think my assessment is accurate, though? Are schools struggling to implement PLCs because we don’t have enough skilled leaders to see PLCs as anything more than a checklist project to monitor?

    From a school leader’s eyes, what are the barriers to effective PLC implementation? I’ll readily admit that I’ve got a limited perspective because I’m still a full time teacher.

    I’m enjoying this opportunity to think with you…

    • Bo and Bill,
      This email makes me think back to your earlier post about Google’s 20 percent time and schools. I think much of the problem lies with perception. At many schools, teachers view PD as a chore, since often, it’s so poorly executed and not relevant to what is going on in their classrooms that it’s seen as another add-on to an already busy day. To these faculty, the thought of 1 hour of PD a day isn’t appealing. But if you reframe the presentation, and instead show how it is an extension of google’s 20 percent time, and an opportunity for faculty to work on initiatives of their choice that will impact student learning, I think you would get a tremendously different response.

      Could repackaging PLCs go a long way toward more effectively implementing PLCs?

  4. Bob,

    I love your connection of unfinished, developing thinking to your father’s wood craft. What a superb analogy. Certainly, in the case of this post, I am hopeful that I will not be the only crafts person working on the idea; I hope that the piece of “furniture” will be a collaborative project as multiple thinkers and creators shape, sand, varnish, and utilize the piece. Of course, the butterfly effect may be all I get. Perhaps this post may set into motion a course of thinking or action that I will never know occurs. Without a doubt, I have experienced such thinking from following others thoughts in books, blogs, observations, conversations, etc. I think the key is to share and think collectively. I am not sure I understand your question about the coffee house for teachers, but I hope it is not abandoned. I see it happen everyday through PLCs, lunch table conversations, tweets, etc.


  5. Bo:

    I too like the format of unfinished ideas that grow over time. When I learned about making furniture from my father (he was good at both making and teaching the craft) I remember the process was a series of steps, each one was unfinished. You kept coming back to the work until you had a mostly finished product that you liked. The key was coming back and building on what you left. I sort of see your post in that light.

    What has happened to our coffeehouse idea–a place for teachers to work through their thoughts about teaching and learning? Are we too busy?


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